Protests and economy

- island.lk

Friday 4th November, 2022

Sri Lankan business leaders made a fervent appeal to the Opposition and trade unions ahead of Wednesday’s protest march, but it went unheeded. They requested that the protest be cancelled, given its economic cost. Their concerns should be appreciated, and their views taken on board because the task of reviving the economy will be unattainable without their help.

The business community is right in having pointed out that political disturbances take their toll on the economic recovery process, and therefore everything possible must be done to prevent them. But some business leaders have a history of stoking up protests; it has now come to light that a number of tycoons provided funds, victuals, etc., to the Galle Face protesters in support of the latter’s efforts to oust the then President Gotabaya Rajapaksa and his government. Didn’t it occur to them, that protests adversely impacted the economy, and the warring parties had to be pressured to make peace for economic recovery to be achieved?

The business community should also have appealed to the government to refrain from provoking the Opposition and trade unions into taking to the streets. Wednesday’s protest march was against the prolonged detention of some Aragalaya activists under the PTA (Prevention of Terrorism Act), which successive governments have abused to suppress their political opponents. If the university student leaders currently being detained and interrogated are responsible for any transgressions, legal action has to be taken against them, but there is no way the government could justify the use of the draconian PTA in dealing with them. In fact, the student unions must be condemned for shielding the rowdies in the garb of undergraduates responsible for savage ragging and the violent suppression of dissent in universities. Stringent action is called for against the troublemakers who disrupt universities and attack dissenters. But on no grounds could the use of the PTA to suppress political protests be countenanced.

President Ranil Wickremesinghe has pardoned three LTTE cadres who were serving jail terms for their involvement in a conspiracy to assassinate President Chandrika Bandaranaike Kumaratunga in 1999. If the government considers an attempt on the life of a Head of State to be venial, how can it justify the use of the PTA to have its political opponents arrested and detained indefinitely for protesting?

The government insists that political stability is a sine qua non for economic recovery and therefore everything possible must be done to restore law and order. There is another school of thought that says political stability cannot be achieved unless the economy is stabilised first and relief granted to the masses crying out for help. Both these arguments are tenable. The country finds itself in a Catch-22 situation. Hence the need for the government and its opponents to make compromises and adopt a conciliatory approach to problem solving instead of flexing their muscles and clashing at the drop of a hat! The business community can reconcile the warring parties.

Money is said to talk. Big businesses wield enormous influence in politics, and have powerful politicians eating out of their hands. They can leverage their influence to knock some sense into the politicians who are fighting at the expense of efforts being made to resuscitate the economy. Will they tell the government and the Opposition in no uncertain terms that they will not help the politicians who act irresponsibly hindering the economic recovery process and causing losses to the economy? Ideally, they should push for the formation of an interim all-party government.

The need for President Wickremesinghe, Opposition Leader Sajith Premadasa and other leaders to put the country before their political parties and make a collective effort to save the economy cannot be overstated. They have already demonstrated that such cooperation is not beyond the realms of possibility; they sank their political differences and passed the 22nd Amendment to the Constitution Bill by a majority of 173 votes. Will the business community crank up pressure on them to make a similar effort to revive the economy?

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